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4 tips to race a Grand Tour: A sports psychologist's guide

4 tips to race a Grand Tour: A sports psychologist’s guide

7 min read
  • Sport psychology

It is that time of year again: Grand Tours are back. After a cracking Spring Classics season, the Giro d’Italia started last week, and the Tour de France and the Vuelta a España are only weeks away.

There are many reasons why Grand Tours are so exciting, but it all lies in the demanding aspect of them: three weeks of daily stages, covering all types of terrain, with only two to three rest days. On top of the physical side of the race, it is key for riders to deal with the mental demands, too.

So how do cyclists get through this gruelling race? Our performance psychologists explain what it takes…

Know your role within the team

Although only one rider can wear each jersey at the end, it’s the team effort that makes a winner. Without support from the team, the coaches, the domestiques, the soigneurs and everyone else behind the scenes, the riders would not be successful.

Each rider has a job in the team, and to be successful, each rider must embrace it. With only one overall contender, the team has to learn to put their pride aside and do the job they’ve been set to do. For highly competitive and performant athletes, this is harder than it sounds! They have to recognise that they will personally not win this Grand Tour, but they have to work hard and put their skills forward for someone else.

This is also true of teams who aren’t aiming for a spot on the General Classification. With such a variation in terrain throughout the race, to have a shot at stage wins or other jerseys, each rider is going to need to know when to take the lead and when to work for others.

It’s a race full of sacrifice and knowing when to step up and when to step back. Experts say that having your team members riding in front of you to cut the wind can save between 20-40% of energy – sometimes, a stage is won only because that energy was saved throughout the previous week, and victorious riders have their teammates to thank for it.

But how do you really embrace your role?

  • Communication is vital here. If coaches and Directeurs Sportifs can clearly articulate their expectations and break them down into clearly defined roles and behaviours, then they will help athletes improve their understanding of what is needed.
  • A team culture of being open to feedback is important. If athletes have a high fear of failure, it can lead to them covering up their mistakes or not taking the necessary risks required to succeed. Fear of failure can be reduced by coaches offering pro-active feedback and encouraging open dialogue.
  • Finally, athletes need to have the technical ability and confidence to execute the behaviours needed for their role. Knowing is not enough. It is the doing that matters. 

Set a goal for your team

Like any major sports event, teams can’t approach a Grand Tour without knowing what their goal is.

Some are aiming to lead the General Classification, whilst others may just be hoping to win certain stages, or have their eye on the sprinters and king of the mountain jerseys. Goals can also include the Combativity Award (where a rider has shown a fighting spirit) and Team Classification (the collective time of the three highest-placed riders from each squad), or even simply getting in as many breakaways as possible.

With teams having such different goals, it’s important to know what success looks like for your team, so you know when to expend effort, and when to save it for a key moment. This will also decide how to train for the event months in advance, so getting it right is important.

How can you do goal setting right?

  • Make it challenging but realistic. Goals that are easy to reach will not provide the motivation to work any harder than you already are. So, it is important to make your goals challenging, as this will encourage you to apply more effort, giving you a higher sense of accomplishment once the goal has been reached. 
  • Make your goal specific to the race and the riders in that team. Try to avoid vague terms when setting goals as this makes it harder to monitor the progress.
  • Focus on developing your skills, not just the end outcome. For continued personal growth and progress, setting goals that focus on improving your skills (and not just on what you want to achieve) will help. Clearly identify which areas you want to work on and improve in the race.
  • Ensure goals are shared, whether they are a personal or team goal. Sharing your goals and aims with others can help achieve it – social support has been found to be highly valuable in sport.
Train your mind as well as your body. Unlock your full potential with sport psychology coaching.

Learn to adapt your goals

Over the 21 days of a Grand Tour, so much can happen that will require teams to change their goals. A great example of that is the surprise abandon from Miguel Ángel López, one of the pre-race favourites, on Stage 4 of this Giro, requiring his team to completely shift their plan.

Having a goal requires the ability to adapt adapt it throughout the race. Just as we tell our athletes: goals must be flexible. Being able to monitor, tweak and amend your goals is the hallmark of a mature learner and leader and of a successful team. This will also help maintain motivation within the team over the training period and the three weeks of the race.

This can also happen in much shorter time frames, such as having to deal with crashes up ahead or staying updated on the time gap to the breakaway. Whether through the ear piece, on the bike or on the team bus, communication between the team manager, DSs and riders or among riders themselves is key to adapting effectively.

How can you adapt your goals?

  • Be flexible. Be aware that if the situation changes, goals may need to be tweaked.
  • Communication is key. Cyclists should make use of their coaches to gain information and change goals accordingly, sometimes at the drop of a hat. The team manager may change their tactics depending on thing that happen throughout the race. This is where the cyclists need to be flexible and ready to adapt their goals.
  • Consider obstacles. A new area of research into goal setting is investigating how thinking about potential obstacles can help people achieve their goals. The team should consider what obstacles may come up and how they will set new goals and overcome these barriers.

A fight with yourself

Studies have revealed that cyclists hit endurance limit in multi-day races such as the Tour de France. These cyclists have to work beyond the point of comfort, pushing their legs to carry on pedalling and fighting the desire to stop.

In endurance events such as these, the athlete’s mind has to ignore the body’s pleas and continue sending signals to keep working at that same level of effort. The mind is the key component to being able to carry on, and it’s critical to any success you can achieve.

So how can you develop that mindset?

  • Being able to engage in helpful self-talk is crucial. Self-talk can convince your body and brain to keep going. Most people find their own unique ways of doing this, so practice this during training sessions, especially using them to silence negative thoughts.
  • Use visualisation. Many athletes use this to help them focus on an event. Before a race, close your eyes and picture yourself in it. Visualise specifics, like how you’ll start the event, how you will get through a particularly difficult part, or crossing the finish line. Imagine yourself doing well and meeting your goals.
  • In long endurance events, the brain can get overwhelmed, becoming emotional and stressed. Learning how to control your emotions is vital. Use our 10 top tips to help you control your emotions.
  • Don’t focus on the finish line – thinking about how far you’ve got to go can cause the brain to become overwhelmed. Take each moment and each day as it comes. As we say to our athletes “be where your feet are”. This will help you push past the fatigue and doubt.

Final thoughts

The cyclists in the Grand Tours are like no other, fighting with their minds to keep going for 21 days. They fight for their team and for their leader, working together to push each other to be the best.

Here at InnerDrive, we respect each and every one of the athletes that ride in the Grand Tours, pushing their bodies to the limit and making the ultimate sacrifice for their leaders.

Want to develop that mindset to help you push through endurance events? Get in touch with our team of sport and performance psychologists to chat about how we can help.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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